Saturday, March 24, 2018

Q&A with Roberta Silman

Roberta Silman is the author of the new novel Secrets and Shadows. Her other books include The Dream Dredger and Beginning the World Again, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New Yorker and The Atlantic. She lives in Boston.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Secrets and Shadows, and for your characters, Eve and Paul?

A: Years ago I had the opportunity to meet a man who was sent as an American spy behind the German lines during the early years of the Second World War. He had been born in Germany, was Jewish, very intelligent and had fabulous German. 

His mission was to try to help Jews and Catholics and Gypsies and others whom the Germans were hunting down before they could be picked up and sent to concentration camps. 

At one point when he was telling my husband and me about his adventures he stopped and said, “Most of the people were loners, occasionally there was a pair of siblings, but most of the time people were on their own. There was one exception, though, an intact family of a father, a mother, a two children, a boy and a girl.” 

Somehow that stuck in my head and I must have subconsciously thought about it for a long while.

Although I was a small child when the Second World War started, it was the defining event of my life, and I have also been very interested in its long-term effects, especially the effect of losing one’s home and language. 

My father and his family left eastern Europe at various times and escaped the Nazi surge eastward, but I was always very aware that they had had to make a new home in a new country and learn a new language in order to live. And that my mother was the only one of her large family of eight children who had had the luck to be born in the United States. 

What did it feel like to leave a place where you had been born and expected to die? Especially if you were privileged, well-educated and felt secure? 

And what would you do if you finally got to safety? Wring your hands over your experiences, or reinvent yourself and try to put the past behind you? 

I had met both types as I grew into adulthood. But I sensed that behind the brave and successful facade there might be a story, lots of stories. I think that’s how I came up with Paul. 

And I had known very submissive women who married in the ‘50s, who were taught by their mothers to be supportive and cheerful and not ask too many questions. Women who were changed enormously by the Feminist Revolution in the ‘60s and ‘70s. A woman like Eve who thought she had everything, only to discover that there were problems beyond imagining. So she divorced him, but then what? 

When I watched the Berlin Wall come down, these two people suddenly seemed to be standing in front of me, telling me their story. A story that I was compelled to tell. I started doing research and my husband and I went to Berlin in 1993 and after that trip I knew what I needed to write. 

Q: What do you think the novel says about the impact of the Holocaust on survivors and their families? 

A: I think people write about what they don’t understand or fear, and as a child growing up during the war and as an adult meeting people who had survived unspeakable things and/or hearing about them, I was driven to understand their stories. 

Each of those who was annihilated in the Nazi killing machine that propelled the Holocaust had a story. An unimaginable, cruel story, but an untold one because they died with their stories. Yet what about those who survived? How did they maneuver through the world? 

I knew about the ones who couldn’t manage to survive but who had written eloquently in an effort to understand what had happened to them — people like Primo Levi and Paul Celan — but what about the ones who were living more ordinary lives? Who had married and had careers and children? Who had tried to escape the past? 

I think this novel is about those people, people who have survived unspeakable things and tried never to speak of them, to bury them, to “move forward,” in today’s parlance. But I don’t think that’s possible, especially if you are intelligent and thoughtful. 

So I tried to write about the long-term effect of the Holocaust and the War on a marriage. A marriage that looked successful until it wasn’t. A marriage that couldn’t bear the burden of an unspeakable past. 

But I also believe, firmly, that the bonds of love are powerful, that the love that grows with the years and having children and just doing the daily ordinary things that life requires can be very strong, can overcome great obstacles, and can free people to unburden themselves, to open up. And that is why Paul called Eve and why she went with him.

Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: A friend who had come with his family from Germany in 1939 knew I was interested in the people who survived, and he told me about a book called Last Jews in Berlin by Edward Gross. 

I had read Goodbye to Berlin as a young writer and admired it and even saw Julie Harris in the first theatrical adaptation of it which was called “I Am a Camera.” So when I went back to those stories I got a feeling for what life was like in Berlin, who Berliners really were. 

I loved the works of Thomas Mann and Stefan Zweig and so many German writers, and all the music — I play the piano — and I became obsessed with how this great culture could have also produced the Nazis. 

So I just read and read, about the years before the rise of Nazism in Otto Friedrich’s book Before the Deluge, in all of William Shirer’s fabulous books and in Marie Vassiltchikov’s Berlin Diaries, and lots of others. 

I have also always been interested in the righteous Christians, the people who didn’t just become Nazis because everyone around them had embraced Hitler. 

I addressed that in my novel Beginning the World Again in which the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is woven into the narrative about the Jewish scientists and their families who came to America to make the atomic bomb. 

In Secrets and Shadows, I wanted to explore what it might feel like to be helped by righteous Christians and also what the cost might be for them. That’s how I came up with the Friedmann family. 

What surprised me was the amazing bravery of those who resisted Hitler and the Nazis. How they stuck to their principles and refused to give in even though they died doing it.

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing, or did you make many changes along the way? 

A: I knew Eve and Paul would go together, and I had a vision of the house in Berlin, but I honestly didn’t know how it would end. The working title was "Journey to Berlin" because it really was a journey in which I was a participant. 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I am copy editing another novel called Nothing Was Simple which I would like to bring out next. It starts when two people meet at Roosevelt Field when Lindbergh takes off on his famous trans-Atlantic flight in 1927 and ends a few months after JFK is assassinated. It is an intergenerational novel about parents and children and also about race. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Recently a friend who doesn’t read much fiction asked me: Why fiction, why not just read about the past in historical documents? I was a little surprised and at first I thought he was teasing me. But he was serious. 

Even after I asked him Why War and Peace? or The Magic Mountain? or The Great Gatsby? or Farewell to Arms? Or Howards End? or the Raj Quartet? or To The Lighthouse and Jacob’s Room and Mrs. Dalloway

To put it as simply as I can, I think fiction is the history of the world, that fiction gives us the breadth of vision that we need to cope with the world now, that it is as necessary as food and water and air. 

And that those of us who write it are contributing to that river of imagination that has lasted since Homer and Beowulf and will be here long after we are gone.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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